Purple Heart suspect defends honor

By BILL TORPY | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: June 19, 2013

An Army vet and former Holly Springs, Ga., police officer charged last week with faking a Purple Heart award is fighting back. In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Shane Ladner produced three military records obtained by his attorneys that they say show he indeed earned the medal awarded for combat wounds.

Ladner’s attorneys are trying to stave off a grand jury indictment and help their client tamp down an onslaught of public scorn that has come his way.

Attorney John Cook said not only do records indicate Ladner got a Purple Heart but the GBI’s former chief forensic document examiner says Ladner’s discharge certificate with the notation of the medal does not appear to be a forgery.

“Look at this word here,” said Cook, an old Navy man who lost an eye (stateside) in the service. Cook pointed to a line in Ladner’s discharge form. “This word sums it up for this man. The word here is ‘honorable.’ ”

Ladner became known in November when he was injured and his wife, Meg, nearly killed in Midland, Tex. when a train hit a flatbed trailer carrying several vets in town for a parade and hunting trip.

But in April, Fox 5 TV aired a report accusing Ladner of being a fraud because discharge records obtained by the station did not indicate a Purple Heart. Making matters worse, Ladner had said he was wounded in Panama in 1989 during the operation to capture President Manuel Noriega. Instead, at the time Ladner was in Mississippi in high school.

Now, he and his lawyers say that was all a cover story. They say he actually was wounded by shrapnel during a classified drug interdiction action in Honduras in 1991.

Ladner entered the Army in 1990 and by December, records provided by his lawyers show, was in Honduras. Three months later, those records show, he was granted “top secret” classification. Another document with his name, a “classified information nondisclosure agreement,” says he can be charged criminally if he discloses such information.

“We cannot go into detail where he was or what happened when he was wounded; he cannot discuss this publicly,” said Cook. The lawyer then paused to anticipate the disbelief generated by the “can’t-tell-you” story. “Why is a kid fresh out of boot camp given top secret clearance? Because they are exposed to things not to be discussed in public. That’s the oath he took. He can’t even discuss these things with me.”

Ladner said the medal was lost when he sent it home from Central America. His lawyers also say they cannot find the citation that says he got one.

Cherokee County D.A. Shannon Wallace said investigators worked closely with U.S. Armed Services to collect and assess evidence and her office is preparing to bring the case to the grand jury. The Cherokee sheriff’s department declined to comment. After the arrest, Lt. Jay Baker told the media, “There simply is absolutely no record of him receiving a Purple Heart — ever — in the U.S. Army.”

On Nov. 15, the Ladners were sitting on a flatbed truck with other veterans in a parade, having been invited by Hunt for Heroes, an organization that provides a banquet and a hunting trip to honor vets. A train traveling 62 mph hit the flatbed, killing four people and injuring more than a dozen. Meg Ladner’s leg was amputated under the hip. The couple received an outpouring of support, including fundraisers. They are among several families suing Union Pacific railroad and the operator of the truck.

The story turned from tragedy to scandal in April after the Fox 5 report. Two DD214s — the certificate given to vets as they leave the service — had no mention of the medal, which denotes being wounded in action against the enemy. The station also found that his story about being wounded in Panama was not true.

Ladner was issued a DD214 in 1994 after he left active duty. It noted nearly 12 months overseas duty and a “Humanitarian Service Medal.” He returned to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001 and was discharged in October, 2002. That discharge has additional medals but no Purple Heart.

But Ladner has a yellowed DD214 dated October 2004, when he says he left National Guard service. That form lists a Purple Heart. Ladner’s legal team had retired GBI document examiner Arthur Anthony check out the certificate. He determined the clerk’s signature on the form was “original wet ink.” Anthony told ther AJC he found “no evidence of erasures, alterations or manipulations of any kind.” Ladner’s criminal attorney, Atlanta lawyer Ray Giudice, said the clerk who signed the form has authenticated her signature.

Giudice sent this information to Cherokee investigators before the arrest. Also, on May 13 Ladner spent more than two hours with investigators answering questions during what Giudice called a “very accusatory” interview.

On June 12, while taking his wife to the doctor, a patrol car pulled Ladner over near a busy intersection at I-575. Ladner said he was handcuffed and hauled away while his wife, unable to drive, sobbed uncontrollably. Ladner said he told the arresting deputy he was told he would be allowed to turn himself in. Ladner said he was told he was a “flight risk.”

“I have to change my wife’s wounds, change her colostomy bag; I take her to the bathroom,” he said, his voice rising. “Where am I going to go.”

Giudice said the sheriff’s department told him, “We were worried he had guns in his house and we didn’t know how he’d act.”

Ladner said the officers marched him, handcuffed, from the furthest parking space into the precinct for questioning while a TV camera crew followed him. Giudice called the action “chicken (bleep).”

Since his arrest, Ladner said he and his wife have become prisoners inside their own apartment.

“We don’t sleep, we can’t eat, this just hangs over us,” said Ladner.

Ladner’s lawyers say they are still pushing to get records and have received many from both the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration. The V.A. records included a copy of the newest DD214 denoting a Purple Heart but the DOD has not released that copy.

“Why the V.A. has Army records that the Army hasn’t given us? I don’t know,” said Cook. “The record— keeping process isn’t perfect. Look at current news reports about Iraq and Afghanistan vets having problems getting records.”

Jason Mavropoulos, a researcher who pulls military records from National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, was provided some of Ladner’s records to review. He said DD214s having varying information is “not unusual. The military being the bureaucracy it is has discrepancies all the time.” But, he added, if retroactive information is added to a later DD214, it normally will be in an addendum. He said the latest DD214 “does look suspicious but it may not be fraudulent.”

The records also include a report from 2006 where the V.A. turned down Ladner for disability benefits for a back injury, hearing loss and PTSD. Ladner was turned down for the benefits, largely for missing a medical examination but the V.A. reports states “DD214 revealed receipt of a Purple heart.” In November after the train accident, Ladner was accorded a 60 percent disability related to his prior service, according to records.

An Army “personnel qualification record” notes Ladner having a Purple Heart, as well as serving six months in Cuba, where Ladner said he was when thousands of Haitians were attempting to leave the country to make it to the United States.

The report of possible fraud and later arrest has stoked widespread anger among many vets. An Internet site called “This Ain’t Hell” looks to “out” vets claiming medals they didn’t earn. Jonn Lilyea, who said he served in the Gulf War and who runs the site, said it’s implausible that a green soldier like Ladner would have been sent overseas for a covert operation. He said the anger will subside if “he and his lawyers come clean. But if they keep clinging to his story where will be no sympathy.”

Lawyer Giudice said he and his team are confident in their case. “Now it’s game on,” he said.

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